District champion Highlanders keep battling
What do you do when you’re down three goals?
Maybe it’s the same thing you do after you start 1-4: Win.
That’s what Gatlinburg-Pittman’s girls soccer team did Tuesday night, clinching a spot in the Region 2-A/AA tournament by rallying to tie Rockwood 3-3 before Claire Ballentine’s tally gave the Highlanders a 4-1 win in the shootout. G-P won the District 3-A/AA title for the third straight year on Thursday with a 4-1 win over Grace Christian.
“We talked a lot with the team about not quitting and always giving effort,” said Highlanders coach Whit Helton. “We were still down 3-0 until about 22 minutes left. There were a lot of emotions. My stomach was basically one big knot throughout the game.”
Alyssa Hale, Micki Werner and Courtney Malone tied the game over the final quarter of regulation, forcing the penalty kicks. It was almost a replay of the Highlanders’ season which began with four losses in five games. G-P has lost once since, a 6-1 defeat to AAA juggernaut Morristown West. That’s 10 wins in 11 tries.
“I think we’re all just really excited to play more as a team,” Werner said. “We’ve worked really hard and committed ourselves to not give up on a game.”
Helton has seen leadership and communication develop on the field, too. He’s also played with formations, bringing more support back on defense after G-P surrendered silly goals early in the season. That left less players up front, where the Highlanders had been bunching together too much.
The changes spread the field and the goals came in bunches, like the three the Highlanders posted in 13 minutes last week against Seymour.
“The way we’re playing highlights each individual player’s talent,” Helton said. “Each player can be successful so as a result we have success as a team.”
Werner said the Highlanders really started to turn a corner a couple games after losing to Rockwood during the regular season.
The loss to the Tigers was the start of G-P’s 10-1 run. Teammate Haley Hooker said the Highlanders are moving the ball around much quicker than at the start of the year and creating chances.
Helton isn’t afraid to make changes when he needs to. He switched back to the old formation when his team fell behind Tuesday and it paid off. The tinkering turned G-P’s season around in August before saving it in October.
“(The start of the season) was really frustrating, especially for the seniors,” Hooker said. “We were kind of giving up but then coach Helton got us motivated and we’re a better team.”